During a Greenbuild 2016 session titled “Positive Disruptors,” imaginations were set alight by a discussion of green building “super materials.” By adapting biological processes, three of today’s leading innovators have collectively managed to harness fungi and employ rhizomes to make healthy and renewable products for a resilient built environment.
Eben Bayer, co-founder and CEO of New York–based Ecovative, explains how his discovery of mycelium’s strength and fire resistance led to the engineering of MycoBoard™, a wood alternative surpassing conventional substrates, and MycoFoam™, a fungi-based material used in protective packaging. Bayer’s technology uses substrate from wood chips and plant stalks, moistened with water and inoculated with mycelial cells (the vegetative part of fungi). Those cells grow through and around the substrate, all the while deriving nutrition from it. In time, the mycelia form a complex molecular network, which acts as a glue, essentially holding everything together.
The choice of substrate, the strain of mycelium, and the growing method determine the product’s properties, which may be cushioning and absorbing, leatherlike, or rigid. Ecovative’s lower-density products, which behave much like styrofoam, have achieved a third party–verified Class A fire rating.
The first application of MycoFoam™—molded packaging—offered an alternative to plastics. Today, it is mass produced and sold directly to end users such as Dell, as well as via the Ecovative website, for use as a structural core in everything from furniture to doors to acoustical panels. Available, too, is a range of finished products for office interiors, such as decorative acoustical tiles, which can be customized for mounting to walls and ceilings.
Operations have expanded to include a second factory, where they are scaling up production of three-by-six-ft and four-by-eight-ft sheets of MycoBoard™. “In the past, we only made our products available in the molded shape form,” notes Bayer. “So, I am really excited to see what architects and building designers [do with] the material, now that it is commercially available.”
Another Ecovative innovation, the Grow It Yourself (GIY) kit, is Bayer’s answer to the many requests from people for products he couldn’t provide. “We created the GIY kits so artists and designers and even students could get raw material from us—dehydrated substrate [that acts] like a sea monkey. They add water and can make anything.” Lighting designer Danielle Trofe has devised a lampshade from the material; her aptly named MushLume installation features in the eco-minded 1-Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. Ecovative is set to partner with her to offer a version of her lampshade as one of their GIY kits.